The Oroville Dam: Doomed to Fail or Just Poor Timing?

Water flowing Saturday over the emergency spillway, bottom left, of the Oroville Dam in California.CreditRandy Pench/The Sacramento Bee, via Associated Press

Building the Oroville Dam
The Oroville Dam, located on the Feather River in California, is the largest dam in the United States. It is also the tallest, towering over the Hoover dam by a considerable 40 feet, and one of the highest in the world. Unlike the Hoover dam however, it is an earthfill dam, as opposed to concrete construction. Like many other dams across the United States, construction began in the early sixties and it was finally ready for use in 1968.
Though the Oroville dam certainly provides cause for great concern right now (more on that later), perhaps it’s been doomed all along. Two accidents occurred during its construction that could be viewed a harbinger of trouble to come.
The Flood
Less than three years into the dam’s construction, a major flood struck the northwest, killing dozens. It left thousands homeless and resulted in over $540 million dollars in damage. Naturally operations were postponed for a time, until it was safe to resume work on the dam. Then, nearly a year later, disaster strikes again.

The Train Wreck
On the evening of October 7, 1965, an empty train and its operators, heading southbound, collided with a train full of 4,400 pounds of rock fill for the dam headed northward. Officials theorize that after the southbound train cleared the portal of the tunnel, the northbound train hit it head-on and it was rammed upward and backward until it hit the top of the tunnel.
Following the collision, the lead engine of the empty train was lifted off the tracks and sheared off the cab of the northbound lead engine, wedging it into the arched portal of the tunnel. The sudden impact ignited nearly 10,000 pounds of fuel leading to a fiery demise for the 4 operators aboard. It took cleanup crews 6 days to clear the debris and get the area and track back in usable, working condition.
The final theory on the cause of the accident, after further investigation, is that the loaded northbound train failed to wait for the green light, indicating that the empty train had passed, thus allowing safe passage.
While we can speculate whether these accidents are truly a harbinger of doom or simply ill-timed and unfortunate events during construction, there’s no doubt that the current situation is a crisis which demands our attention.

Why It Matters Now
The Oroville Dam crisis matters not just to the 180,000+ residents downstream, but to Americans nationwide. It highlights the need for decades-old infrastructure and public works to be reviewed and inspected for safety, and updated as deemed appropriate by qualified officials.
Perhaps if when 12 years ago, various environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, petitioned the state to update the emergency spillway by lining the downstream side with concrete, Sunday’s evacuation might not have been necessary. Though residents have since been allowed to return home, the area is still under an evacuation warning.
The average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is 52 years, with 70 percent of them exceeding half a century in age by 2020. While the cost of maintaining and updating these structures is daunting, groups like American Rivers prefer an alternative solution. They argue that many of these dams should be removed entirely, allowing the rivers and waterways to return to their natural state.
Regardless of which side of the dam you’re on, updating infrastructure or removing them, the situation with the Oroville Dam highlights the need for a renewed conversation about our country’s infrastructure and waterways.
What do you think we should do? Comment below.
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